12-Week Challenge: Week One

This week’s focus was “Normal Life: As the protagonists know it.”

Ironically, real normal life went out the window. Storms knocked out electricity and the Internet from Wednesday evening to Thursday evening, followed by a power loss Saturday morning and brief black-outs Sunday.

To be blunt, I couldn’t access my novel, so I didn’t reach my goal.

The first two chapters are nearly perfect, including their titles: The Boy Who Wanted to Leave and The Girl Who Wanted to Stay. They set the pattern of switching points when the protagonists are separated.

The third chapter, which throws Favius into peril, is short and fast.

However, the fourth chapter is too long. I can distill Argenta’s actions into later dialogue, but it’s crucial to keep her interactions with key supporting characters. The reader needs to know them before Favius meets them – which is coming up.

Week Two: September 27

Inciting event for boy-protagonist. Meeting of protagonists. Inciting event for girl-character.

12-Week Challenge: 2021 Fall Final Draft

I won’t lie: I based this challenge on a real course. While looking for professional advice for polishing the Book One draft, I received a friend-of-a-friend recommendation. Unfortunately, the course is for a FIRST draft (not Draft 3.2) and conflicts with my work schedule.

The syllabus emphasized plot-structure pacing. According to the instructor, plot points and/or conflicts occur about 4,000 words apart. Therefore, Week One has a lecture about The Hook (the reader’s emotional engagement) and requires students to write a lead-in to the first plot-point.

I got a silly vision of handing my boy-protagonist a weekly schedule and saying, “This is what I need you to do.” (The girl-protagonist would promptly flip the paper over to draw pictures.)

Yet that’s what I’m doing. Here’s my 12-week challenge schedule, and theme of the particular plot point or conflict.

Week One: September 20

Normal Life. As the protagonists know it.

Week Two: September 27

Inciting event for boy-protagonist. Meeting of protagonists. Inciting event for girl-character.

Week Three: October 4

Temporary Shelter. Protagonists think antagonist is thwarted and her problem will resolve itself.

Week Four: October 11

Rude awakening. Protagonists look to each other for help as situation is worse than thought.

Week Five: October 18

Separation 1. This is the “ditching the adults” part of children’s novels.

Week Six: October 25

The Crossroads.

Week Seven: November 1

The Breather. Aftermath of previous decision/loss.

Week Eight: November 8

Picking Up the Pace. Two chapters in which protagonists can’t address the ramifications of one conflict before another begins. Their goals clash. characters can’t properly address the ramifications of one conflict before another begins)

Week Nine: November 15

Hard Decisions. Separation of the protagonists.

Week Ten: November 22

Darkest Night. Separate chapters for each protagonist, each with an unexpected twist.

Week Eleven: November 29

The Climactic Sequence.  

Week Twelve: December 6

What happened afterwards; lead-in to next book.

Review: THE FACE IN THE FROST by John Bellairs

“P.S. Unexplained noises are best left unexplained.” – Prospero’s note to his cleaning lady, Mrs. Dufrey

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost, Olmstead Press, 1969.

What I Read

 The Face in the Frost is humorous, low fantasy novel with Poe-esque foreboding. The protagonist Prospero (not that wizard) is threatened and stalked by an unknown enemy. His old friend Roger Bacon (implicitly not that fellow) brings him crucial information. Together they begin a road trip/fact-finding mission.

Bellairs is a master of setting. He combines humor and horror in his description of towns and landscapes. Throughout the novel, the author surprised me with flourishes of figurative language, such as the following:

“…(B)ehind him floated large silent owls. They drifted and hung like paper lanterns…” (70)

I can’t pinpoint when my initial impression (“Too many details!”) changed to full immersion in the wizard’s journey. Suffice to say, the setting reflects the transition from his everyday life to increasing peril. A good example is the lead-in to his encounter with a ghost. There was typical foreshadowing: the locals spoke of a spooky forest and a rusty barrier showed an attempt to keep its denizens at bay. Yet the sense of danger was elevated by Bellairs’ earlier depictions of normal sights and sounds of August (albeit unusually cool). Prospero’s harrowing foray into the cursed forest was nothing like his previous travel through woodlands.

Besides his awesome powers of description, Bellairs uses dialogue and snippets of backstory to great effect. Despite this being a stand-alone novel, Prospero and Roger’s friendship seemed to have a long history. When Roger disappeared less than a third into the book – just as Prospero discovered the identity of his tormentor – his reaction of fear and hope felt real. (And I did miss Roger!)

What didn’t I like?

Authorial asides* using second-person which bumped me out of the character’s point of view. For example, “It was as if you were half asleep” (75) could have substituted the character’s name.

The last third of the novel has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vibe. A key supporting player, Millhorn, is introduced suddenly – after Prospero is dropped into our contemporary world.

The climax felt abrupt. Rereading it, I liked that the protagonist used both recently-acquired and previously-mentioned items to conquer the villain. That was clever. However, I wanted to know more about a certain Lovecraftian object.

What I Learned

While enjoying the interplay between Prospero and Roger, I had a brick-in-the-head moment: “Maybe I can grow my protagonists’ friendship BEFORE they’re forced to rely on each other!”

I tossed three chapters out of my work-in-progress and wrote 3214 words of new dialogue and description. (I’m not sure how many words I deleted, what author Mary Catelli calls “antiwords.”) I restored a confrontation between Argenta and bullies, which I initially worried would be too intense for readers 8-12.


*FOOTNOTE: I have discovered several authors have quirks related to their “authorial voice,” for lack of a better term. Some address the reader directly, in the style of old novels. It’s meant in fun, but it can be annoying. Other authors insert asides, discretely or intrusively.  

April Update: Writing

The Factory is swallowing my free will time, so I wrote this Sunday night. I hope everyone is having a good week in my stead!
***

I decided to finish my series in its entirety before looking for a publisher. It wasn’t a snap decision. In fact, I resisted the idea.

While working on Book One’s second draft, I found myself writing vignettes for later use: scenes and dialogue growing naturally from the denouement. I suspected this scribbling was creative procrastination – or worse – a form of Doing It All Wrong. As everyone knows, a Real WriterTM finishes a book, sells it, and then figures out whether it’s worthwhile to write a sequel or a series.

Two things made me reconsider whether it might be a better option than write-stop-repeat.

The first happened when I studied popular children’s books. I read stand-along books but revisited the first books of two series.

All the books featured young protagonists making consequential decisions. The authors kept the tension high with fast-paced events but reminded the reader of the character’s goals. It didn’t take much, either: an omniscient sentence or a bit of dialogue.

Yet there was a marked difference in emotional continuity (for lack of a better term).

Some authors maintain it well. For example, I enjoyed re-reading a novel because I knew how budding friendships would grow and bloom in subsequent books. Despite adding and substracting characters later in the series, the author kept the protagonist’s original friends. Without those relationships, the series would have been a fantastic string of episodic adventures in the protagonist’s life. But not such a pleasure to re-read.

The other series-starter was fantastic, but it underscored why the series disappointed me. In the second book, the interesting protagonist suddenly (and maddeningly) became shallow. The author kept the character’s exterior, but pushed a reset button on character growth. The heart-rending climax of the first book, foreshadowed from the beginning and presented with dramatic irony, raised an expectation of emotional repercussions in the next story. No such luck. The author introduced a new leading character with trauma of his own. The girl-hero became little more than a follower until a tidying-up-one’s-past scene in the final book.1

I decided that a re-readable series, regardless of plot intricacies and grand themes, is one in which plots and character dynamics make sense across various books.

How could I do the same?

I began writing timelines for three adults whose backstories and relationships with the child-protagonists are of particular importance. There was an immediate Book One reward: A supporting character has a better motive – foreshadowed in the first chapter – to help a stranger he meets in Chapter 8. But one conflict in particular won’t be resolved until perhaps the last book.

I realized, too, that one of my favorite characters doesn’t seem to exert any influence on the protagonists in a later section of the timeline. I wonder why. I don’t want to kill him off; he’s fun to write and makes a great foil for other characters.

Writer David Farland gave me the second reason to write a series instead of stand-alone: to make it a selling point for publication. He explains better than I can at The Story Doctor.


  1. I refer to the original series. The author has written sequels and prequels. I’ve heard that retcon (literally: retroactive continuity) shored up some plot holes. However, the author still uses emotional crises as character motivation in a way that is out-of-balance with on-the-page relationships from the prior stories. No, thanks!

Writing Crapola

I read a lot of writerly advice. (I’m currently savoring You’ve Got a Book in You, which I am about halfway through.)

One I struggle with is READ WIDELY, EVEN OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE.

May I be frank? Oftentimes, something pushes me out of the story and makes me think, “Why am I reading this when I could spend the time writing?” Or, more specifically, “Why am I reading THIS CRAPOLA instead of writing something less awful?”

I think it’s because I’ve gotten in the habit of reading for the sake of writing.

Ray Bradbury once described how, as a kid, he asked the family doctor about weird lumps in his wrist; his doctors congratulated him on discovering his own bones. I can often see the “bones” of the story poking through its skin, and it puts me off. Even worse, so many writers slavishly follow the Joseph Campbell structure, I feel a sense of deja vu even with books I know I haven’t read before.

Street Art 2

In keeping with the spirit of my first foray – inspired by Sheree at View from the Back – I took a daytrip to Marine City, Michigan. Until recently, a ferry ran between it and Sombra, Ontario, Canada. (A recent update on the plight of the Canadian ferry service is here.) It remains a pretty riverside city that’s grown even lovelier thanks to imaginative citizens.

It’s home to the Snug Theatre and the Riverbank Theatre (a repurposed bank) and good restaurants. It’s an integral part of both The Bridge to Bay Trail and the paddlers-pleasing Blueways of St Clair. Most of its street art is on the main drag.

Local firefighters are remembered in a memorial park quite close to the sidewalk.
One of the mosaic plaques recalling the city’s maritime past. According to Great Lakes historiography, Marine City was once the largest ship-building community on the Lakes.

On the riverside, it’s impossible to separate art from landscaping. Here’s the entrance to River Park aka the Civic Women’s Club Park. The club dolled it up a little with cornstalks and gourds.

Turn into the park, and you’ll find a sitting area centered around a mature tree. The art is an accent; the river and its environs are the focal point.

The sunny benches near the water beckon.

The mural below always makes me smile – not just because it’s one of my favorite places for Sunday brunch. When the owners renovated the restaurant, they let its original mural of Peche Island Range Lighthouse play peek-a-boo with passersby.

On the inland side of the street, there’s a mix of commercial art and storefront displays.

Reflected in the window below is the Peche Island Rear Range Light, which has a rather interesting history. It’s named after Peche Island or Isle aux Pêches (French for “Fisheries Island”), which is a Canadian island located where the Detroit River meets Lake St. Clair. It always tickled me that a beat-up old lighthouse moved upriver to “land” in Marine City.

Below is art on the side of Marine City Music & Collectibles. It looks every better in person, up close.

The marque on the Mariner theater is a new addition done in the style of the ’20s. Can you tell where the new blends with the old on the building? Me, neither! If you’re wondering about the Titanic Exhibit, that’s a permanent feature. It centers on a 1:48 scale builder’s model of the RMS Titanic which the owner “brought home” after it went around the world (including London and the National Geographic Society’s Explorer’s Hall).

There is more, but I will end with two sculptures from near the Marine City Fish Company.

The Importance of Word Choice

When yesterday became too dark for gardening and too Friday for housework, I decide to watch a movie from my half-forgotten watchlist. I chose Inception, a ten-year-old blockbuster I hadn’t seen. As usual when watching music-heavy videos, I put on closed captioning. It certainly helped in certain scenes. However…

*spoiler ahead*

As the story reaches the climax, the protagonist holds his dying wife in his arms and gently kisses her face. Or as the caption puts it: Smooches.

Smooches? Smooches!

After I stopped laughing long enough to stop the film and go back, I watched it in a completely different state of mind . Disbelief, suspended until then, came roaring back with its drinking buddy Hilarity.

“Kisses tenderly” or “gently kisses her face” or plain old “kisses” would have been better captions. Why use a word completely out of keeping with the mood?

Street Art 1

Sheree at View from the Back posted an interesting set of photos of Street Art (Murals, Graffiti, 3D Grafitti, Poster art, Sticker art, Sculptures and Sidewalk Chalk art). I wanted to follow suit because I enjoy statuary and decorative arts.

When I first moved the Bluewater Area, I was surprised that even small towns have public art. Algonac, a city of about four thousand, hosts an art fair on the waterfront. It also boasts seasonal displays.

The oldest statue is the Civil War Memorial, located between the boat launch and the ferry to Canada (which is, if I recall, the smallest border crossing between the US and Canada).

The original Civil War memorial was updated to include Armed Forces flags and Missing in Action (MIA) remembrances.
Ojibwe (Otchipwe)/English addition to the War Memorial.

Most street art reflects the importance of the waterway to life and industry.

The Garfield Arthur Wood memorial celebrates the inventor and industrialist who also was the first to travel over 100 miles per hour on water. Chris-Craft Boats was born here, a joint enterprise by Christopher Columbus Smith and “Gar” Wood. The white building behind it started as a doctor’s house, hosted the original public library, and currently serves as the historical museum.

Another statue depicts past and present navigators of the St. Clair River. The Native American faces the water; the European, inland. There was too much shadow to focus on the details on the other side, like the string of fish.

The Spirit of Algonac by Alexander Buchan, dedicated in 1989.

Some art is less formal. In the spring, local artists began painting the concrete bases of lightpoles and spiles (single mooring posts on shore – in this case, on the inland side of the boardwalk). The theme is nautical; the execution, whimsical; and the effect, pretty.

This doesn’t fit the definition of “street art,” but I want to include ribbons, since they serve a decorative purpose as well as drawing attention to community groups. These teal ribbons, part of the Tie Michigan Teal campaign, were put up by volunteers with the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance. They will remain throughout September.

I enjoyed taking photos so much, I may take a daytrip to another town!

Slooooowwwww writing

The weirdest thing happened this week. Normally, I start each writing session by rereading the previous day’s work, which primes the pump and gets me ready to write for three hours.

This week, the number of words slowed to a trickle. I still felt like I was writing at my normal pace, but then the bedtime reminder sounded and… 300 words after three hours. Also, I realized I broke a rule of my world and I have to figure how to make things right.

I am going to write in the morning this week and see if it helps.